It was irritating to see former U.S. president Bill Clinton poke his finger in the chest of a TV interviewer on Sunday and whine that he at least tried to kill Osama bin Laden, even if he failed, while his successor, W., didn’t even try till after 9/11. Some ex-Clinton aides went on a similar tear over a miniseries that showed them botching the Osama file.

I think it’s a stupid debate. Maybe the Clintonites guessed right on the “intel” in that case and the Bushies didn’t. But there’s always intel on almost anything. The trick is to evaluate it and choose the right bits, among all the good, bad, lucky and unlucky guesses. The intel mountain has magnified massively since 9/11, as Ottawa lawyer Maureen Webb notes in her readable new book, Illusions of Security. Gobs of electronically generated scraps provide endless irrelevant “leads” based on verbal cues that set off recordings that must be evaluated, overwhelming the evaluators — though the best clues are always found through human legwork, especially when it involves payouts or intimidation.

What rots my socks is how Bill Clinton has managed to focus attention on this particular difference in foreign policy between himself and George Bush, while not mentioning, or being called to account for, some far more ominous continuities. In fact, you could say Bill Clinton paved the way for George Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and strewed it with roses. W. owes him. Here’s what I mean.

Bill Clinton was the first post-Cold War president. America had no rival. It was the sole superpower left standing. I doubt it occurred to U.S. policy-makers not to use that power: What was the point of “winning”? But there were some prerequisites. First, the rest of the world, in the form of the United Nations, had to be made acquiescent or irrelevant. Next, the exercise of power had to be justified in the name of humanitarian benevolence.

Let me capsulize the record. In late 1992, when Bill Clinton was president-elect, U.S. troops landed in Somalia, claiming humanitarian reasons. It was a UN-authorized mission, and ended with the Black Hawk Down incident. In 1995, the United States bombed Serb forces in Bosnia, again with UN sanction, and an even stronger humanitarian rationale: fear of genocide amid comparisons to Nazism.

In 1999, NATO forces, led by the U.S., attacked Serbia and Kosovo, with the same justifications, but this time with no UN mandate. That was the turning point. In 2001, after 9/11, the U.S. attacked Afghanistan and, in 2003, it invaded Iraq. Neither had UN support, though the UN provided co-operation in the subsequent occupations. By then, the war on terror was a key motive, but humanitarian reasons were also invoked, especially in Iraq, when the other rationales dissolved. In Afghanistan, too, the cause of women, for instance, and democratization continue to be raised.

I confess that I found the international politics of the Clinton years confusing, in a way that Cold War conflicts were not. Why Somalia? There is always some impoverished, embattled place to help out that gets ignored. The U.S. Marines stormed ashore there as if it were Iwo Jima, but no one was trying to stop them. In retrospect, it seems like a display of the U.S. right to send its troops where it chose.

The Yugoslav conflicts also seemed overhyped. Was it truly a replay of Hitler? By the time of his death in The Hague, charges of genocide against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic had been dropped. A high-level Serb leader convicted of war crimes this week also had genocide charges eliminated. But as a way of building an impregnable case for unilateral military action, the stress on genocide etc. makes cynical strategic sense. The Clinton years did the spadework on these scenarios; the Bush wars have played out their implications.

I wouldn’t expect Bill Clinton to acknowledge leaving this kind of legacy, though I’m not sure he left much else. Writing about Tony Blair in the London Review of Books, Jeremy Harding says, “He is nearly always willing to take responsibility for his decisions, but very rarely for their consequences.” You could put it on their gravestones, both of them.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.